A new exhibit will be launched at the MacBride Museum at 5 p.m. on May 2. It will present a piece of Yukon’s hidden history – the Jewish presence in the Klondike gold rush.
There were as many as 200 Jews in the Klondike at the time. That number dwindled, by the 1901 census, to a few dozen, says historian Brent Slobodin, who has been gathering information on the subject for the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon.
The research and the exhibit that has resulted are the product of a Community Development Fund grant awarded to the society last summer.
According to Rick Karp, the spokesman for the project, the story goes back to the 1990s when Dr. Norman Kagan, a visitor from the United States, took an interest in the Jewish cemetery
in Dawson City. Not long after that, the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon was formed.
They hired a student to do some research, which revealed a more precise location for the long abandoned cemetery. Karp and friends investigated, finding the entrance sign for the Bet Chaim, or “House of Life” cemetery, as well as the long collapsed picket fence that surrounded the plot.
The solitary surviving stone marker belonged to Solomon Packer, who died February 26, 1918 while gathering firewood. This marker was flanked by four unidentified grave mounds.
A few weeks later, Karp returned with friends and they began the rehabilitation process. A new picket fence and arched gateway were quickly installed.
The cemetery was rededicated in August of 1998. Congregants from all over Canada joined Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray in the ceremony. Karp arranged for a Torah to be brought into the territory for the event, only the second time that has ever happened.
Move the clock ahead to 2015, and the society received funding for the current project. The new exhibit, says Karp, is a mobile display structured in three parts: Coming to the gold rush, at the gold rush, and after the gold rush.
The former covers the journey from Seattle and follows the trip north. The final part of the exhibit deals with what happened to them after leaving Dawson City and follows Jewish stampeders to gold rushes in Nome, Fairbanks and beyond.
Accompanying the exhibit will be an audio-visual presentation showing the restoration of the cemetery almost 20 years ago. Yukon’s minister of tourism and culture, Elaine Taylor, will be saying a few words at the event.
While the exhibit is structured in a form familiar to Klondike devotees, noted Karp, the society is looking beyond the territory; after the launch in Whitehorse, the exhibit will be sent to
Dawson City, where it will be on display this summer between court sessions in the council chambers of the Dawson City Museum.
Following that, the exhibit will be sent on the road to historical groups far and wide. For these viewers, where the gold rush is not as well known as it is here in the Yukon, the three-part presentation will familiarize them with the epic tale of travel, struggle and accomplishment. Many of those who arrived in the Klondike established successful businesses before moving on.
According to Slobodin, it was difficult finding historical accounts. He tried identifying Jews from names in the historical records, but a list I provided him of nearly a thousand volunteers from the First World War failed to produce a single confirmed Jew.
Isaac Rosenthal, a liquor merchant in Dawson City was Jewish, but what about Marcus Rosenthal? Slobodin hasn’t been able to confirm that name yet. Tracking down Jewish gold rush participants by name was not particularly fruitful, said Slobodin, as many changed their names to mask their ancestry.
Changing names was a common practice among immigrants. Many of the stampeders came from America, which is known as the “great melting pot.” From my own encounters with families tracing their roots in the Klondike I know that name changes were not uncommon.
Karp pointed to the generations of Jews who had been forced to move from place to place because of their religious beliefs. Many were hesitant to keep diaries for fear of being exposed, he said.
Slobodin was able to acquire photographs from the Dawson Museum, the MacBride Museum and institutions outside of the territory. A descendant of the Isaacs family (the Isaacs brothers ran a business on Front Street in Dawson) provided “tons” of documents about their Klondike sojourn.
They have not yet uncovered any of the diaries and letters that were so common during the gold rush. Perhaps, mused Karp someone somewhere, upon seeing the exhibit in their community, will fill in the story of Klondike gold rush Jews with a diary or other documents that have been gathering dust in an attic for more than a century.
Yet despite the paucity of historical information, Slobodin has been able to unearth several accounts of Jews in the Klondike. Thanks to Ric Newman of Chicago we learn that during the winter of 1902, there was a complete shortage of butter in Dawson City. The first shipment that arrived in Dawson in the spring had been placed too close to the ships boiler, and had been rendered rancid.
Henry Isaacs, a clothing merchant bought up the entire consignment of two kilogram tins and experimented until he found a method of reconstituting the butter. Others were eager to buy his product, and for a while he was the only supplier in town. So he became known as the “Butter King of the Klondike.”
According to Slobodin, they should make a movie about Max Hirschberg. Hirschberg ran a roadhouse in the Dawson area, but in 1900, he decided to sell out and go to Nome, Alaska. He left Dawson on March 2, 1900 on a bicycle; for the next two and a half months, he pedaled his way over ice and snow to get there.
When he left Dawson, the temperature was minus 34 degrees Celsius. He suffered “snow blindness, exhaustion and exposure,” and dunking in icy water. The bicycle broke down, but kindly people along the way helped him make temporary repairs.
A young Sid Grauman left Dawson and later became famous for establishing his famous Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. If there are more stories like these, then perhaps there is a book to be written in the near future.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org